David Watts 8 July 2003

Many people may wonder why we’re including Saint-Jean Baptiste in a list of Canadian holidays. Some will be quick to point out that it is primarily a Quebec holiday.

Well, not quite and not just. The capital city of Canada’s first found and last-to-join province is called St. John’s for the day that John Cabot arrived there in 1497.

That was on June 24, the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. So the Baptizer is the patron saint of two Canadian provinces: one, the first to be discovered by Europeans, the other, our largest by area.

As the biblical John the Baptist was the forerunner to the Messiah, so the Saint-Jean Baptiste Societies saw themselves as forerunners of an expanded and spiritualized Canada to come.

After the fall of Old France in the Revolution, many Quebeckers saw themselves as a faithful remnant in an age of secularism. St. Jean Baptiste societies led this under British administration.

They were promoters of an independent Canada at a time when other Canadians were content to be British. Due to a lack of a sympathetic response elsewhere their focus narrowed to Quebec.

Our national anthem was first written in French and sung on Saint-Jean Baptiste Day in 1880.

When “O Canada” was first translated into English, it was as a Quebec anthem, for the 300th anniversary of the founding of Quebec—celebrated in 1908.

The movement for a Canadian flag also began in Quebec with the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society, while other Canadians were content with Britain’s Union Jack or an ensign with the Jack on it.

For these reasons it makes sense for Canadians outside Quebec and Newfoundland to look at Jean Baptiste. Who was this character who became the patron saint of a new Canada?

From what we find in the biblical record, it appears that he was an outdoors man and a powerful speaker, prone to mood swings, with a quickness to speak out that landed him in difficulties.

On the outside this is a reasonable profile of many of Quebec’s politicians and political leaders. We can see why he was a popular role model in an age of heroes taken from religious history.

But there are other, very important aspects of this John that are important, and apt to be ignored.

First, unlike earlier prophets in the Hebrew tradition or in today’s Islam, he was not calling his people back to some mythical golden age, to the Good Old Days to which they must return.

His call was to the Here and Now—“The Kingdom is at hand.” No Je me souviens here. He saw what was happening in the present, and so paved the way for what and who was to come.

Second, he rejected race or what we would call nationalism as the basis for this New Order.

The fact that his ministry included and baptized people who were regarded as oppressors and collaborators—the soldiers and tax gatherers of the occupying army—makes that clear.

His was no call to ethnicity or racial purity. But the fact that he baptized at all underscores this.

Baptism was a rite of admission for new converts. Administering it to Jewish nationals was like requiring an entrance exam and oath of citizenship of natural born Canadians before they can vote

Yet that is what he did. And in doing that he made the point that citizenship and religion—which for Jews were one and the same thing—was not a matter of ancestry but of individual affirmation.

In our own context we can say one becomes Canadian, or Quebecois, not by birth but by choice.

This is a message that needs to be heard whenever we see our origins superficially and become stuck. It was the message of the reformers in the quarter century leading to Confederation.

In the wake of the 1837 rebellions that had put English and French, Catholic and Protestant, British and Canada First against each other, these men came up with a new basis for Canadianism

It was based on adherence to a set of reforming principles, not on tribalism or club membership.

It was this initiative and the consensus that came from it that paved the way for Confederation long before talks began between the Canadas and the Maritime colonies.

John A. Macdonald’s Liberal Conservative coalition built on the foundation of Robert Baldin and Ernest Lafontaine. This incorporated the visionary spirit of the followers of Saint-Jean Baptiste.

A radical, charismatic ayatollah who lived in the desert two millennia ago became the patron saint of two Canadian provinces and for a time, of Canada itself.

Societies founded in his name became the pioneers and evangelists of a new type of nationality that was finally embodied in the Dominion of Canada.

Their namesake was the forerunner of the age from which we date our calendar.

He could look at his people and humankind unfettered by race and religion. He proclaimed a coming kingdom inclusive of all who could receive it by choice and see beyond old factionalism.

These are good reasons for all Canadians to remember the Feast of St. John.

Next time Quebecois and Newfoundlanders celebrate on June 24, let us remember all forerunners who pave the way to July 1: a reminder of the potential of people who live by choice in the Now